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Friday, January 02, 2004

2003 YEAR END WRAP-UP: Albums 

Images courtesy: All Music Guide

Happy New Year. Even though New Year’s Eve has got to the most overrated night of the year for going out, I hope everyone had a good time.

So I’ve finally completed my long-promised year-end list. What started out as a plan to post two lists, one for my favorite albums and one for singles and songs, quickly spiraled out of control as I got more into it and came up with ideas for other lists and sub-categories that better represented how I actually listen to music. Now there are lists for favorite mixtapes (still being finalized), remixes, albums I kept hearing about but never got to, albums I was disappointed to finally hear, albums (and singles & remixes) I missed from 2002 that I finally checked out in 2003 etc. The lists aren’t in any order but, where it was applicable, I have noted what might have topped a list if it was in order of preference.

I make no claim about this in any way being a comprehensive take on the music of 2003 which is why all the lists are titled “Favorites” rather than “Best Of.” Many albums that I might have possibly liked, I never heard. My paper is a little too short currently to still buy stuff out of curiosity and I have neither the time nor energy to download tracks from albums to sample them. But if anyone has suggestions on albums or songs they think I might like based on my list picks, email me or feel free to post comments below.


There aren’t a whole lot of hip-hop albums on this list because the quality of the albums I heard often just wasn’t there. Why buy albums when, for a 1/4 to ½ the price of one artist’s album (which might only have one or two tracks worth your time and money), mixtapes give you 20-30 tracks, top to bottom heaters and the best of what’s new?

Below follows part of an Elliott Wilson op-ed from the Jan/Feb 2004 “Love/Hate” issue of XXL on what MC’s need to do to make great hip-hop albums. I pretty much have to agree with him on almost all the points he makes:
When was the last time you heard your favorite rapper say hip-hop was dead? Probably recently. F-ck red gold and throwbacks, hip-hop’s newest trend is recent revelations from top MC’s on rap’s comatose state.

Hey MC’s, this goes out to you: It’s y’all job to show and prove. Are you gonna do anything besides bitch? I got a couple of suggestions: You’re not 2pac so stop listening to All Eyez On Me and Makaveli all day. Leave Pharrell alone and learn how to produce yourself. Let Lil Jon be and write your own hook that’ll get the crowd rowdy. Stop jocking or hating on 50 Cent and make yourself someone fans care about. And most importantly: You’re not Biggie. Jay could get away with it but you can’t. There’s nothing wrong with having a rhyme book. A DJ has two turntables and a mixer. You should have a pen and a pad. It’s OK to formulate your bars carefully and go over the verse several times before you spit it in the booth. Eminem does this; maybe that’s why Whitey is putting all you one-take, punch-me-in style-stealers to shame. BTW: stop copying other MC’s lyrics—it’s biting! We got a column blowing y’all spots and y’all still do it. Turn that Madden 2004 off and write something original. Put the effort in and read a dictionary if you have to….

50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’: the biggest album of the year from an industry perspective. Even though I liked the album and it was stacked with tracks that were all over radio and in the clubs, why does it feel like this album falls short of heights reached by other classic hip hop albums in the past like Ready to Die, The Chronic, Illmatic etc. to me?

Bad Boys II – Soundtrack: Urban pop music done the right way. Forget the super-wack “Shake your Tailfeather”, this album had plenty of other great mainstream hip hop and R&B tracks to bang. A great comeback statement for Diddy showing he still had it.

Dave Banner – Mississippi: The Album: why don’t people rave about this dude they way they do about Outkast? He’s nearly as accomplished a musician, just minus the flamboyant image.

Joe Budden – Joe Budden: probably my favorite hip hop album of the year and, unlike Defari, this kid was justified in being a mad rapper after his sales fell short despite delivering a cohesive album complete with hot-ass beats, thoughtful lyricism and the requisite radio and club bangers needed to help juice those soundscan sales.

DFA – DFA Records presents Compilation #1: I’ve been on the nuts of these guys since The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” came out in 2002 and they haven’t really let me down yet. A great collection of this NYC production team/label’s early 12” singles for non-DJ’s who don’t buy wax. (see also: Muzik presents Disco Punk, a free promo CD mixed by DFA given away with Muzik magazine covering some of their remixes for non-DFA acts)

Dwele – Subject: I won’t argue that this album is groundbreaking in any way, it’s pretty much paint-by-numbers neo-soul but I did enjoy listening to this album a lot in 2003. Sound-wise, this is Slum Village with singing instead of rapping.

Freeway – Philadelphia Freeway: his voice is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition for many but this kid delivered a surprisingly enjoyable debut album.

G-Unit – Beg For Mercy: a solid if unadventurous album. My question still is how do you get Hi-Tek, No ID and Khalil (the Self-Scientific one, I believe) in to do production and still come up with what basically sounds like a standard issue Aftermath/Shady album?

Anthony Hamilton – Comin’ From Where I’m From: real southern soul from a long, underrated singer. Looking forward to hearing more from this cat in the future.

Hot Hot Heat – Make up the Breakdown: probably my favorite non-hip hop or R&B album of the year. This is how to make a great, catchy record without necessarily “selling out” and “going pop.”

Kelis – Tasty: if you read this blog regularly, you know how much I like this album. Deserves to be huge.

R. Kelly – Chocolate Factory: album of the year for me. Robert Kelly may be personally flawed but I really believe he created a soul music masterpiece with this album. Tracks from this album will be played for years to come and he even created a new reggae ridddim to boot. Easily the best work of his career and I don’t see this dude falling off any time based on new tracks like “Thoia Thong” and “Touched A Dream” from his Greatest Hits album also released this year.

The Libertines – Up the Bracket: the British Strokes? Maybe, but this album flipped the formula and came up with a fresh take on the extremely tired “Britpop” sound.

Mobb Deep – Free Agents: The Murder Mixtape. Essentially intended as throwaway, stopgap underground mixtape-style album between record deals and “official” albums, the Mobb ended up giving us some of their best, most urgent-sounding music in a while.

Keith Murray – He’s Keith Murray: sadly, this album was probably missed by most after Murray was dropped immediately before it’s release but he showed why he’s still lyrically got it. The “female” records might not have been the best look for Keith (especially biting The Razkals “Movie Star” hook-n-all for his “Candi Bar” single), but this album still provided a good blueprint for lyrically-complex, underground spitters like Canibus on how to pick hot beats that’ll keep heads nodding and casual fans dancing without forcing you to dumb down the rhymes or add forced corny hooks.

Musiq – Soulstar: see my comments on Dwele above. Same goes here only less so on the paint-by-numbers neo soul thing.

Outkast – The Love Below/Speakerboxxx: this is Outkast’s Sandinista after Stankonia’s London Calling-like brilliance. This really should have been a single album as it’s way too much music to digest in one sitting. They could have done a Radiohead (their rock counterparts) and released one great single joint album and then a follow-up a few months down the road.

And as much I tried, I still can’t get into a lot of Dre’s The Love Below that much. Contrary to many opinions, Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx is just as eclectic and experimental sounding in it’s own right especially as compared to 99% of hip hop, mainstream or underground, out right now. Overall, this collection still gets props for being far more artistically and creatively advanced than pretty much all music being released by major labels today.

The Strokes – Room On Fire: Forget the hype, this is still a solid listen even if somewhat disappointing in it’s lack of ambition at taking some bigger artistic chances. I wouldn’t count these guys out quite yet though.

Justin Timberlake – Justified: I fought this one as long as I could but this kid delivered a great modern R&B album and made a believer out of me when I finally played this album.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell: there was ridiculous hype prior to the arrival of this album that, as an admittedly non-regular indie rock listener, to my ears seems to have been ably met. Who sounds as vocally fresh and different in today’s music landscape as Karen O?


Image courtesy: All Music Guide

Erykah Badu – Worldwide Underground: I am still disappointed that, to my ears, this didn’t meet the artistic heights of Mama’s Gun which is the only reason it’s not on the favorites list but, Worldwide Underground had it’s own charms and continues to grow on me the more I play it.

Biz Markie – Weekend Warrior: more listens will reveal whether this is as pleasurable listen as it surprising turned out to be on initial plays. Contending for comeback of the year with a few others on this list.

– Grand Champ: haven’t played this as much as I should to warrant putting it on my favorite albums of the year list as I only have it on wax, but this album was a big step up from The Great Depression IMO. Another comeback of the year contender?

Missy Elliott – This is Not a Test: again, since this just came out and I haven’t played it enough yet, I didn’t feel fully comfortable putting it on my favorite albums list yet. Missy & Timbaland have hit us again with avant-garde experimental music masquerading as contemporary hip-hop and R&B though.

Fannypack – So Stylistic: trust me, better than you would imagine based on just listening to the “Cameltoe” single.

Ja Rule – Blood In My Eye: the one-note subject matter relentlessly bashing 50 Cent & crew obscured the fact that Ja did a pretty effective job of taking it back to the streets on this album. Unfortunately, the streets have moved on and, for Ja, it seems his efforts have been an exercise in too, little too late in the eyes of many hip-hop fans.

Jay-Z – The Black Album: this is on a lot of people’s year-end lists but, to me, it can’t f-ck with the best of Jay’s older albums. I’d probably rate this album a B+ with marks off for Hov playing way below potential. He's right to bow out until something in the game inspires him to step up his rhymes again. Right now I like the album but don't love it but time might upgrade my opinion.

Wyclef Jean – Preacher’s Son: Again, I just got this album a few weeks back and haven’t played it enough to render a full judgment but on initial plays, this sounds like the best solo album Wyclef has done since The Carnival.

Sheek Louch – Walk Witt Me: this album veered between being on this list or my most-disappointing albums list depending on my mood but, in the end, I decided there was enough hot ish on it to make the cut. Sheek still needs to step up his songwriting game if he wants to make it into the MC top ranks (and help The Lox finally go platinum).

Sean Paul – Dutty Rock: the Man who brought reggae back to the mainstream. I liked this record every time I played it. I just didn’t play it much but why bother when Hot 97 was playing tracks off it all year long?

Timbaland & Magoo – Under Construction Part II: on beats alone, this would probably make the favorites list but, at the end of the day, a whole album of Tim and Magoo rapping is a tough lyrical pill for me to swallow.


Image courtesy: All Music Guide

Ms Dynamite – A Little Deeper: I copped this in England in the fall of 2002 soon after it came out after hearing “Dy-na-mi-tee” all the time on XFM online and spun it through and well-past it’s eventual US release date in 2003. This is the album Lauryn Hill would have made if she'd grown up in London in the garage scene rather than in New York with hip–hop.

Fat Joe – Loyalty: even as big as he is now, Joe is still an underrated MC whose move into making radio-friendly club and party records seemed like a natural evolution to well-deserved mass appeal and success rather than a cheap sell-out move on his part.

Floetry – Floetic: improbably, this Brit duo ended up winning on the back of the slowest, dreariest-sounding ballad you would never imagine a record label releasing as a single. Luckily their album, a blend of singing, spoken-word and rapping, had some better rare groove-inspired soul on it to listen to.

Lil Flip – Undaground Legend: this came out way back into August 2002 but I didn’t get into this kid until early 2003. With a few exceptions, I don’t naturally gravitate towards Southern and Midwestern street /gangsta artists but, trust me, this album is a great listen and, based on his recent mixtape appearances, I think he’s only gonna get better moving forward.

Eric Sermon – React: a severely underrated album from this legend who, true to his EPMD 10 track album roots, kept this album nice and compact for a quick 'n' easy listen.

The Streets – Original Pirate Material: super media-hyped albums like this normally get on my nerves but f-ck me if this album was not only as good, but better than the hype around it. This dude’s production spans hip hop and UK garage and his lyrics, more garage/E-generation John Cooper Clark spoken word than British Eminem rapping, had an emotionally-honest quality that is increasingly rare in US hip hop. Exotic to uninitiated ears, but worth investigating.


Images courtesy: All Music Guide

Basement Jaxx – Kish Kash: I’m a big fan of their first two albums and spin tracks from them all the time if I’m somewhere I can get away with it, but somehow I never got around to this album.

Black Moon – Total Eclipse: the more I hear from this album, the more I think I might be sleeping on it.

Blur – Think Tank: I was feeling the first two singles off this album a lot (see below) but that still wasn’t enough to convince me to check this out album out. Should I have?

Broadcast – Haha Sound: I loved their early EP’s, first album and stuff I heard from this new album but still didn’t get to this new album.

Dead Prez mixtapes (Get Free or Die Trying & Turn Off the Radio): loved the first album and liked singles I’ve heard since then, but missed these two underground mixtape albums.

Dizzee Rascal – Boy in da Corner: can you believe after all my raving about this cat, I never actually heard his whole album? But those first two singles were monsters though.

Gangstarr – The Ownerz: my greatest shame of 2003 is that I never bought or even heard this album in its entirety.

Junior Senior – D-D-Don’t Don’t Stop the Beat: great single (see below) and good reviews on this album but I still missed it.

Little Brother – The Listening (and 9th Wonder’s God’s Stepson): early 90’s throwback hip hop done right. I copped the single but never made it to the album.

Mars Volta
– De-Loused in the Comatorium: I loved that last At The Drive-In album that crossed them over to mainstream alternative rock success before they broke up. Supposedly this album has a similar sound, but I never investigated any further to find out for sure.

Mu – Afro Finger and Gel: raved about by various critics and hipsters and on many discerning year-end lists. I banged the “Let’s Get Sick” track at any DJ gig where I could get way with dropping it but never really got motivated enough to check out the rest of the album.

The Rapture – Echoes: I have three single by these dudes which doesn’t leave much of the album that I haven’t heard, but I just never felt like I needed to cop this. Pitchfork improbably ranking this as the #1 album of the year aside, am I sleeping on something here?

Various Artists: New York Noise/New York No Wave/Rough Trade Shops: Post Punk 01/Hooj Choons’ Le Future, Le Funk: I’ve been meaning to checking out all these compilations of retro and contemporary punk-funk, post-punk and electro joints for a while, but just haven’t gotten around to it yet.


images courtesy: All Music Guide

2 Pac – Nu Mixx Klazzics: when will the desecration and exploitation end? Absolutely atrocious and completely unlistenable. Most shameless album release of the year.

Beyoncé – Dangerously in Love: until the half-way mark, this album was making a strong run at being the pop album of the year with banger after banger of contemporary R&B perfection then it all fell apart in the second half with some really ass ballads. Hard to front on “Crazy in Love” after hearing it for the 1000th time though.

Mary J. Blige – Love & Life: possibly the most purely soulful singer in contemporary R&B delivered a disappointingly mediocre album with what was supposed to be her triumphant creative and artistic reunion with original musical mentor Puffy.

Bubba Sparxxx – Deliverance: early critical buzz claimed this might be the hip-hop album of the year. Not sure what I was hearing but this album was a big disappointment other than one Organized Noize track I remember near the end.

Deftones – Deftones: I’m not really a nu-metal fan in general but for some reason I really, really liked the Deftones’ White Pony album. I picked up this album hoping for more of the same and just didn’t feel it at all. Given the fact that I had the same reaction to their earlier album Around the Fur, I guess my feeling that one album was some kind of anomaly.

Fabolous – More Street Dreams 2: The Mixtape. Fab was killin’ it on a lot street tapes that came out before this album. Unfortunately, few of the tracks I had been hearing were on this album and what was fell far short of the standard set by the bootleg joints.

Jet – Get Born: “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” was one of my favorite singles this year (see below again) and there were a few other hot, albeit derivative, bangers on this album but a whole lotta really corny ballads made this a tough album to play all the way through on repeated basis.

DJ Kay Slay – The Streetsweeper Vol. 1: the king of the street beef mixtape served up a pale imitation of his street tapes for this lackluster major label debut.

Massive Attack – The 100th Window: truthfully I didn’t even hear the whole album but the first single but was so dour and boring sounding (even for Massive), and the album reviews so abysmal, that I didn’t even want to get into more of the music.

Neptunes – Neptunes Presents Clones: a few good singles and a star-studded cast of guests doing cameos but this album fell short of my expectations built up based on their previous work with many of these artists and on the N*E*R*D album.

Radiohead – Hail to the Thief: I’m not sure this is that different than Kid A or Amnesiac but for some reason, it just didn’t seem to draw me in the same way as those albums.

State Property – State Property presents Chain Gang Vol. 2: this album had two mega singles that both made my favorites list (see below) but overall it had too much disposable, generic-sounding corporate thug rap to warrant repeat play.


The Game, Peeti Crack, Red Café and, (of course), J-Kwon.

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